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USF study links advertising to body image

In a survey of 185 female students on a college campus, 58 percent felt pressure to be a certain weight, and of the 83 percent that dieted for weight loss, 44 percent were of normal weight, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD).

This trend in body image is often tied to the media and increased sexualization of women in advertising.

“Many researchers have hypothesized that the media may play a central role in creating and intensifying the phenomenon of body dissatisfaction,” according to an article in PubMed Central (PMC), a science journal at the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine. 

This was an assumption that Ross Krawczyk, a USF graduate and assistant professor of psychology at the College of Saint Rose, would often come across during his clinical psychology work that dealt with eating disorders and body image. 

He found it hadn’t been tested all that much in scientific literature, especially concerning men, which inspired him to study the effects along gender lines. This study, started in 2010, became his dissertation. Krawczyk led the research while USF professor Kevin Thompson advised and a team of undergraduate research assistants helped collect data.

According to the study, there were 437 participants: 310 women and 127 men who were USF undergraduates over the age of 18. Eventually the data was condensed to 18-25 year olds who made up a vast majority of the participants.

Participants were first assessed on media consumption, followed by a measurement of internalization of appearance ideals and a word association task to gauge body dissatisfaction. They were then split into two groups — one was shown six ads sexualizing women and the other group was shown six ads that didn’t.

The results showed that men and women were both affected by the advertisements that sexualized women, but mostly for those with risk factors like internalization. 

“Our main finding … supported … that these ads don’t really affect approximately two thirds of people. There is sort of the stereotype that (ads that objectify women) make everyone feel bad about themselves,” Krawczyk said. “That’s only true if you have certain risk factors (such as) internalization of appearance ideals.”

Data collection took place from 2010 to 2011. Data analysis and writing the report took a few more years to complete, and the task was split between Krawczyk’s time at USF and at the College of Saint Rose. The research was published in September.

What is significant, he said, is they were able to conclude the ads caused the change in body image because of the experimental setting.

Krawczyk plans to explore why internalization occurs in further research.

“I think if we can better identify who is at risk … it can help enhance treatment, it can help enhance assessment of some of these really serious psychiatric conditions,” he said.

However, he doesn’t think the results will have any effect on the advertising industry.

Samuel Bradley, director of the Zimmerman Advertising Program, agrees, stating advertising is a major engine in the capitalist economy — an engine driven by profit.

However, mass change in the advertising industry wasn’t Krawczyk’s goal. 

“I’m not pushing for censorship,” Krawczyk said. 

Limitations of the research include the narrow age group studied, the study said, as well as, Bradley said, the loss of control over variables researchers experience when using real advertisements.

While it may not change the advertising industry overnight, Bradley said this is an important topic by its inclusion of men and pertinence to college students. It is important for college students to become critical consumers of media, Bradley said.

“If anybody’s voice were to sway advertisers, this is exactly the audience,” Bradley said. “If it starts a dialogue … (and starts) to threaten the bottom line then that, as a movement, can change advertiser behavior.”